Three years ago, Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote one of my favorite-ever op-eds.
The piece, titled “How to Tax the Rich” provided a number of crazy (and many unconstitutional) solutions for solving our country’s economic problems.
The premise of his op-ed was to brainstorm policy reform by starting with “the bad version”—a trick Hollywood writers use when they have writer’s block. The ideas is that if you can brainstorm a number of solutions that are bad, you (1) get your creative juices flowing, but more importantly, (2) set a solution boundary by acknowledging the limits of what won’t work.
“I spent some time working in the television industry, and I learned a technique that writers use. It’s called “the bad version.” When you feel that a plot solution exists, but you can’t yet imagine it, you describe instead a bad version that has no purpose other than stimulating the other writers to imagine a better version.
For example, if your character is stuck on an island, the bad version of his escape might involve monkeys crafting a helicopter out of palm fronds and coconuts. That story idea is obviously bad, but it might stimulate you to think in terms of other engineering solutions, or other monkey-related solutions. The first step in thinking of an idea that will work is to stop fixating on ideas that won’t. The bad version of an idea moves your mind to a new vantage point.
With that technique in mind, I will describe some bad versions of how society might go about the job of convincing the rich to accept higher taxes on themselves. But first I need to address the illusion of fairness.
We like to think that fairness is an objective condition. If you and a friend simultaneously find a dollar on the street, fairness suggests that you split it. But what if your friend is a billionaire and you are starving? Is it still fair to split the dollar? And what if you and your friend noticed the dollar at the same time but your friend was quicker to pick it up? Does that count for anything?
In reality, fairness is not so much about the actual distribution of loot as it is about the psychology of how you feel about it. That’s important to understand because the rich won’t give up their cash unless they feel they are getting something in return. And so far, saving the country doesn’t seem to be enough of a payoff.
If we accept that the rich can be taxed at a different rate than everyone else, we can also imagine that there could be other differences in how the rich are taxed. That’s the part we can tinker with, and that’s where the bad version comes in. In a minute, I’ll float some bad ideas about how the rich can feel good while the rest of society is rifling through their pockets.
I can think of five benefits that the country could offer to the rich in return for higher taxes: time, gratitude, incentives, shared pain and power.”
In the article, Adams then lays out a number of terrible (but interesting) policy solutions to trade higher taxes on the rich for benefits to the rich that they value. It’s a great read.
I like the idea of a society more comfortable with being creative with policy reform ideas.
(Image credit: “The New Zebra Crossing”: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/8616054217/)